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Cowboys @ Redskins: Previewing Washington’s Defensive And Special Teams Personnel

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A look at the strengths and weaknesses of the Cowboys Week 2 opponent on defense and special teams.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Last season the Redskins defense was one of the worst in the league against the run and average against the pass. In the offseason the team added Josh Norman, arguably one of the best cornerbacks in the league, although it remains to be seen if he can maintain his 2015 level of play without being surrounded by a dominant front seven and constantly playing from ahead as he did last year in Carolina.

Outside Linebackers

The strength of the Redskins defense comes on the edges, at both outside linebacker (the Redskins are a 3-4 team) and cornerback. The Redskins start former first-round pick Ryan Kerrigan out of Purdue, he is a very good, but not elite, 3-4 OLB. He will give you strong run defense and about 8-10 sacks a year, and while he is not one of the game’s best, you must account for him on every snap. Across from Kerrigan is second-year player Preston Smith, a 2015 second-round pick who had an impressive rookie season with eight sacks as he really came on down the stretch. At 6-5, 270 lbs. Smith has the size, length and pass rush ability to be one of the best at his position in the league. Behind these two is former second-round pick Trent Murphy who hasn’t done much since coming into the league, and the Redskins have actually experimented with using him along the defensive line.

Cornerbacks

At corner the Redskins start the aforementioned Norman, along with Bashaud Breeland who is developing into a top notch player as he enters his third season despite his Week 1 struggles against Antonio Brown. Behind the starters is rookie third-round pick Kendall Fuller, along with Dashaun Phillips, a second-year player who emerged during training camp as a contender for the slot corner position. The Redskins have a formidable pair of starting corners, along with two players capable of covering the slot. This is one of the strongest units on the entire team and certainly on the defense.

Defensive Line

Despite being strong on the boundary the interior of the Redskins defense can be taken advantage of. Chris Baker is the team’s best defensive lineman, and at 6-2, 320 lbs. he has impressive agility and explosiveness for his size, racking up six sacks in a breakout season in 2015. However, after Baker things start to get questionable with first-round bust Ziggy Hood the starter at defensive end opposite Baker, and long-time Redskin Kedric Golston playing the nose. Behind the starters is former Charger Kendall Reyes, journeyman Ricky Jean-Francois, and rookie Anthony Lanier. Baker is the only player you’d want starting for you in an ideal world, while the rest of the unit is better suited to playing rotational roles off the bench.

Inside Linebackers

At this spot the Redskins will start Will Compton and Mason Foster. Compton had a breakout season in 2015, although he isn’t much more than an average to above average starting linebacker, while Foster is a replacement-level player that you’d ideally want as a backup. Behind these two is 2016 second-round pick Su’a Cravens, a versatile linebacker/safety hybrid in the mold of Deone Bucannon of the Cardinals. Cravens is not stout enough to start in base formations yet, but the Redskins will use him as a nickel/dime linebacker who can blitz and cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. The Redskins inside linebackers are aggressive and physical but are prone to over-pursuit, creating cut back lanes in the run game.

Safeties

At safety the Redskins will start former cornerback DeAngelo Hall, a ballhawk who has been known to both give up and make big plays, along with David Bruton Jr., formerly of the Broncos. Bruton spent seven years in Denver although he never cemented a spot in the starting lineup, while Hall transitioned to safety last season after missing almost all of 2014 with a torn Achilles. Neither are particularly dynamic players, but they aren’t complete liabilities either.

Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:

  • Weak defensive "spine" with a questionable defensive line, and average inside linebackers/safeties should be very susceptible to the Cowboys running game
  • Lack of depth on the front seven could be worn down if forced to play heavy snaps defending the run. Outside of Kerrigan, Smith, Baker, and maybe Compton, the rest of the front seven is composed of mostly replacement-level players
  • Aggressive inside linebackers and safeties could be taken advantage of with misdirection and play-action

What The Cowboys Must Fear:

  • Dynamic edge rushers that can pin their ears back if forced into long down and distances
  • Impressive cornerbacks could nullify Dez Bryant with an inexperienced quarterback behind center

Special Teams:

Kicker Dustin Hopkins had a solid first season in Washington, converting on 89.3% of his field goals. Jamison Crowder is the primary punt returner, and while he wasn’t overly impressive in that role as a rookie he was an excellent punt returner in college and must be accounted for. Rashad Ross is a dangerous kick returner, averaging almost 25 yards per return last season, including a 101 yard touchdown.